x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The Palestinian farmer who grows his own resistance

Sustainable farming technique offers food security and counters the pollution created by Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Murad al Khofash, from the West Bank village of Marda, attended the climate change talks in Copenhagen to argue on behalf of the Palestinian Territories.
Murad al Khofash, from the West Bank village of Marda, attended the climate change talks in Copenhagen to argue on behalf of the Palestinian Territories.

MARDA, WEST BANK // As a means to counter the creeping expansion of illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, a permaculture farm might not seem like the obvious approach. But for Murad al Khofash, who runs Marda farm in the northern West Bank, it is the natural choice.

Squashed between some of the largest and most powerful settlements, Mr al Khofash's three-year-old eco-friendly farm is a Palestinian template of how to grow-your-own resistance, from the roots upwards. "There are many ways to resist the occupation," explained Mr al Khofash, who has just returned from the climate change summit in Copenhagen where he demanded the international community put the Palestinian Territories on the environmental map.

"Some resist with weapons and violence, others choose the path of negotiation. My way is to encourage Palestinians to grow trees, and to encourage them not to leave their land." Permaculture - an organic, holistic and sustainable system of working the land - is Mr al Khofash's preferred weapon at a time when swathes of Palestinian land and water resources have long been appropriated or contaminated by Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which are illegal under international law.

Marda, a picture-postcard village lined with ancient olive trees, nestles at the foot of a rugged green mountain range that ensures a healthy supply of underground water. But, as is the case in most parts of the West Bank, Palestinian villagers at Marda - which has a population of around 25,000 - are not permitted to dig wells and instead have to rely on a temperamental supply of water from the Israeli authorities.

According to a World Bank report published this year, Palestinians receive only a quarter of the water that Israelis have access to - a particularly cruel irony given the fact that much of this water comes from the West Bank in the first place. Meanwhile, the population of Ariel - one of the largest Jewish settlements in the West Bank - shows no qualms about releasing sewage water into the villages below, flooding the soils, poisoning lands and choking olive trees.

Earlier this year, the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem released footage showing how the Palestinian village of Salfit, near Marda, has for years suffered from the free flow of sewage water from Ariel. The organisation reports, more widely, that "tens of millions of cubic metres of wastewater flow freely in the West Bank, from settlements, from Jerusalem and from Palestinian communities, greatly damaging the environment. In many settlements, the wastewater treatment plants are outdated and cannot treat the load currently placed on them; other settlements have never built plants."

Israel has made the building of Palestinian sewage plants conditional on them serving the settlements as well, a legitimising clause that the Palestinian Authority continues to reject. On top of which, Mr al Khofash points out that a nearby industrial settlement pumps toxic chemical waste into the Palestinian landscape. There have been media reports of Palestinian children falling sick after swimming in streams polluted with untreated water from settlements, while Palestinian livestock has fallen victim to the same fate.

Mr al Khofash, dubbed the "Palestinian with a green thumb", is picking up on a permaculture project that began in Marda in 1993 but was shut down by the Israeli army at the onset of the second intifada in 2000. The Sustainable Development Centre, in Marda, was initiated by Australian permaculturists and involved dozens of villages in the Salfit district. It ran training courses in water management, composting and other aspects of organic, sustainable farming that were attended by thousands of Palestinians, but was a target of nearby settlers who would burn trees and vandalise farm property before the Israeli military closed the centre completely in 2000. Now, locals say, the military use the building to question Palestinians that they have detained in the area.

The farm begun by Mr al Khofash in 2003 utilises all the skills he learnt while working a four-year stint at the centre, and during a remote-study permaculture course. The farm, which is a member of the UK Permaculture Association and the Global Ecovillage Network, is a blooming tract of land, on which everything is sown with careful consideration to the principles of permaculture. Mr al Khofash is energised with enthusiasm and ideas as he bustles around the robust-looking farm, pointing out patches of aubergine, chilli, potatoes, beans and onions. Demand routinely exceeds supply for his vegetables.

"The methods we use in permaculture are some of the same methods of traditional Palestinian farming," said Mr al Khofash. At the farm, the stones that are a ubiquitous feature of the soil in this part of the territories have been used to build walls. Stacked, discarded car-tyres make borders and also double up as flower beds: tyres attract dew and therefore provide a microclimate for plants. Trees are planted according to their capacity to emit nitrogen or to proved shade. A clump the of sweetly-fragranced Louisa bush is utilised to detract fruit flies. Acacia trees act as a windbreak and feeding ground for the honeybees Mr al Khofash plans to bring to the farm.

There are other plans too: to rear farm animals; use methane gas as a power source; run permaculture courses; and start recycling and composting projects to deal with the rubbish that despoils the Palestinian countryside. It all depends on securing funding and investment - and the idea is to share knowledge and to spread this model to other villages as well. "If I succeed in getting Palestinians to grow their own food, in a few years' time we will be self-sufficient," Mr al Khofash said. "If [the Israeli authorities] put us under curfew again, we will cope because we will have everything we need. And we won't need to depend on the Israeli market - not for work and not for food."

Ever since the West Bank and Gaza strip were occupied by Israel in the 1967 war, Palestinians have become a captive market for Israeli products and were also the source of cheap labour until the second intifada. On top of which, trade agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have deepened Palestinian dependency on Israeli goods. Mr al Khofash is aware of the farm's vulnerability, located so close to imposing and powerful settlements. "Yes, they could come and take my farm and land away anytime, if they wanted to," he says. "But should I just sit here idle because of that? No. Our roots are here and we will stay here. We will do our best to keep our roots firmly in the ground."

* The National